Friends in high places

I’ve been reading Eric Schlosser’s Reefer Madness, which is about “sex, drugs and cheap labor in the American black market.” The drugs section of the book is infuriating. Even if you don’t like drugs or think there is some merit in the idea of a war on drugs, there is no way you can read this book without coming away with a strong sense of how disgusting and corrupt the government is. Here’s an excellent example:

In September 1996, Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham attacked President Clinton for being “cavalier” toward illegal drug use and for appointing too many “soft on crime” liberal judges. “We must get tough on drug dealers,” Cunningham argued. “Those who peddle destruction on our children must pay dearly.” Four months later, his son Randall Todd Cunningham was arrested by the DEA after helping to transport 400 pounds of marijuana from California to Massachusetts. Although Todd Cunningham confessed to having been part of a smuggling ring that had shipped as much as 30,000 pounds of marijuana throughout the United States — a crime that can lead to a life sentence without parole — he was charged with distributing only 400 pounds of pot. The prosecutor in his case recommended a sentence of fourteen months at boot camp and a halfway house. Congressman Cunningham begged the judge for mercy. “My son has a good heart,” he said, fighting back tears. “He’s neven been in trouble before.” Todd Cunningham was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. He might have received an even shorter sentence had he not tested positive for cocaine three times while out on bail.

Didn’t Mr. Cunningham think that some of those other 872,721 marijuana offenders arrested every year might have “good hearts” too? Maybe some of those other kids who’ve had their lives ruined as a result of America’s ludicrous drug sentencing policies had “never been in trouble before” either?

You might say I shouldn’t be surprised — we did already know that Randy “Duke” Cunningham is a crook and a scumbag.

But this is just one of many cases. Cunningham is not even my favorite. For me the one that takes the cake is the case of Leslie C. Ohta, a federal prosecutor from Connecticut who was known as the Forfeiture Queen for her skill at using the law to seize the assets of drug offenders and their families.

[Ohta] seized the house of Paul and Ruth Derbacher when their twenty-two-year-old grandson was arrested for selling marijuana. Although the Derbachers were in their eighties, had owned the house for almost forty years, and claimed to have no idea that their grandson kept weapons and drugs in the house, Ohta insisted on forfeiture. People should know, she argued, what goes on in their own home. Not long after, Ohta’s eighteen-year-old son was arrested for selling LSD from her Chevrolet Blazer. Allegedly, he had also sold marijuana from her home in Glastonbury. Ohta was quickly transferred out of the U.S. attorney’s forfeiture unit — but neither her car nor her house was seized by the government.

What’s even more infuriating is that these anecdotes are only a small part of the story of drugs in America. Schlosser’s book reveals the unabashed racism, ignorance, and cruelty that has colored nearly every aspect of the history of drug policy in this country. I highly recommend you read it if you have not already.

I admit that I’m a little behind the times on being upset about this stuff; Reefer Madness was published almost six years ago, after all. But I didn’t care about the evils of the “war on drugs” in 2003. And more importantly, an undeniable momentum is currently building in the push to reform our nation’s approach to drugs. For example, Nicholas D. Kristof wrote in the New York Times last weekend:

The stakes are huge, the uncertainties great, and there’s a genuine risk that liberalizing drug laws might lead to an increase in use and in addiction. But the evidence suggests that such a risk is small… Moving forward, we need to be less ideological and more empirical in figuring out what works in combating America’s drug problem. One approach would be for a state or two to experiment with legalization of marijuana, allowing it to be sold by licensed pharmacists, while measuring the impact on usage and crime.

Like so many other mainstream observers who have come to the same conclusion, Kristof is absolutely right. The question is when our elected leaders will choose to recognize it.